Shadowbox Theatre Gets Darker For New Production

Thursday September 27th, 2018

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As fall approaches and the days become shorter, a local theatre company is getting a bit dark.

Gearing up to launch their production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, Post Productions is hard at work. Starting at the Shadowbox Theatre (located at 103B – 1501 Howard Avenue) on Friday, September 28th, the play will stand apart from others the group has put on.

Billed as erotic psychological horror, Equus is the first performance by Post Productions meant for mature audiences: Due to its disturbing themes and nudity, unaccompanied minors will not be allowed.

Still, those involved felt the play fit with the theatre company’s’ sensibilities.

“I’ve been planning this production in my mind (and occasionally on paper) since I was 14-years-old,” said Michael K. Potter. “I guess you could say it was my idea, but once I mentioned it to Post’s Artistic Director Michael O’Reilly, he was totally on board. Equus is a perfect play for Post Productions because it contains everything we love: intense emotions, fascinating ideas, a compelling story, engaging characters and a uniquely immersive experience for audiences. It’s a heavy play – but not without moments of lightness and comedy. In a nutshell: It is us.”

Things progressed when organizing True West in spring 2017. Although they were blown away by actor Nikolas Prsa’s audition, he looked too young for any roles. As a result, Potter and O’Reilly approached him about starring in Equus instead.

The show itself focuses on a clash between two ways of living. Representing a normal approach to life, Dr. Martin Dysart (played by Martin Ouellette) is a psychologist confronted by a patient with totally opposite views. Treating 17-year-old Alan Strang, (played by Prsa,) who stabbed out the eyes of six horses, the doctor is exposed to a more ancient, primal and passionate lifestyle — something that comes across as insanity to most.

Facing dissatisfaction and doubt in his own life, Dysart begins wondering if “curing” the teenager is the right thing to do.

With their leads already cast a year earlier, the process of finding other actors went by quickly. Rehearsals began in June after an evening of auditions where people were selected based on their chemistry with those in the production.

From there, great care was taken to ensure everyone was comfortable with the subject matter. As it turns out however, any anxiousness was unnecessary.

“Personally, I had a lot of trepidation about the nudity,” said Potter. “I spent some time researching and talking with people about how to ensure that the actors felt comfortable, that they didn’t feel judged and all of that. In the end, it turned out to be less of an issue than I’d anticipated, thank God. The actors who bare it all [Prsa and Nicole Coffman] are level-headed and professional. [Prsa] had a year to prepare himself and obviously did, because he was ready for it before I was. [Coffman] had been a burlesque dancer, so she was comfortable with her body. This part of the process was so much smoother than I’d expected it would be. That’s a testament to the professionalism of the cast and crew — everyone has been supportive, encouraging and respectful.”

That’s not to say the material hasn’t been challenging though. With Potter Considering it to be Post Productions’ heaviest play, it’s been difficult for the actors as well.

Running through many emotions throughout the play, the two leads have several dimensions to their characters. Ouellette plays someone weighed down by burdens who isn’t mopey either. He also has to bring life to the role through his face and movements, along with moments of playfulness and mischief.

With other cast members, a few things influence their performances too.

“[Prsa] plays the same character at several different points in time between the ages of six and 17, having to be believable at each point,” said Potter. “He’s playing someone who doesn’t fit into our world, who’s tortured and repressed –  but he has moments of the most sublime ecstasy as well. The rest of the cast all have their own challenges in their roles. Most of them also play horses and never leave the stage. Even when they’re not in a scene, they’re on stage watching in the shadows and judging. It’s exhausting for them.”

Movement consultant John Luther brought the realism a step further. Coaching actors on horses, he showed them how the animal uses its neck among other specifics.

Equus is also one of Post Productions’ most ambitious plays on a technical level. A set designer since True West, Matthew Burgess took the role of production designer for the show. Being responsible for the overall look of the production, he’s worked closely with almost everyone crafting visual elements of the play.

This includes costumer Karen Kilbride, who had to stay true to Equus’ 70’s setting.

“[Kilbride] is a wizard when it comes to figuring out looks that seem appropriate for the era and characters, then finding the right items on a small budget,” said Potter. “She scours high and low until she finds what she’s looking for, and sometimes shows up with several different options. What she’s managed to accomplish will help audiences buy in to the world of the play. Her work makes the whole production seem more grounded.”

The only visual aspect Burgess didn’t oversee was lighting. Along with Carter Dersch, Potter developed this aspect of the show while still getting input from the production designer.

This isn’t to say that he didn’t get his hands dirty either: Burgess began designing the set and horse masks himself a year ago. Described by Potter as the most impressive and exciting set they’ve ever had, the director also mentioned that it has a couple of surprises built-in.

Complimenting these visuals, Equus’ score takes it to another level as well.

“We also have Dave Nisbet, a talented local musician and sonic artist,” said Potter. “He composed an original score for the play and created chilling sound effects that I can’t give details about, lest I spoil something. His work added an entirely new dimension to the production. I mean, the first time we ran the play using his work at rehearsal it was like we’d entered another world.”

Having so many elements in play, the director also has to keep track at all times.

“All of this has to be coordinated, which is tricky, nitpicky work,” he said. “During the show, [Dersch] and I are constantly adjusting lights and sound cues that have to be precise, lest the audience fall out of the play’s trance.”

Simplifying the themes of Equus, Potter calls it the intersection between madness, religion and sex. Despite being viewed as insane, Dr. Dysart starts to feel that Strang might only be seen that way for not fitting into society’s definition of normal.

“This Normal is the world of cold, sterile, superficial commercialism, rationality and artifice,” said Potter. “Once we start thinking about it, we see how unsatisfactory it is. To the extent that Alan is insane in any objective sense, it’s the result of being forced to repress his deepest needs in order to conform to this Normal. But why must he conform at all?”

Relating to each character is something that’s shifted even for the director over the years.

“When I was young, I identified with Strang, mostly, because I, too, had a need for meaning that never seemed to be satisfied,” he said. “As I got older, I began to identify more with Dysart, who feels drawn to Strang’s form of life but is too attached to the normal world to really embrace an alternative. Now I identify with both equally, with some of the other characters as well and I find myself torn between them. I think a lot of us are in this position. We want more than the normal world has to offer but we’re too frightened to take the plunge — and perhaps too frightened to admit to ourselves just how empty we’ve allowed our lives to become.”

Equus is produced by Fay Lynn, Potter, O’Reilly and also stars Joey Ouellette, Michele Legere, Kimberley Babb, Mitch Snaden, Dylan MacDonald and Anna Rosati. Performances will take place on September 28 and 29, October 4, 5, 6, 11, 12 and 13 at 8 p.m. with doors opening an hour earlier.

Tickets can be purchased in advance at Post Productions’ website or at the door for $25. It’s recommended that attendees buy their tickets early or check facebook to ensure the show isn’t sold out.

Being slightly biased about the production, Potter thinks the audience will take a lot away from it in the end.

“Experiencing Equus is about confronting your deepest fears and insecurities, accepting them, and then creating your own meaning from what emerges,” he said. “That’s what this play is, really: you aren’t watching or witnessing or observing a show, you’re immersed in a full sensory experience that will haunt you in the best ways for years to come.”

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